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Writing: Literature Review Basics

The basics of a literature review.  Fun, fun, fun.

The Basics of Literature Reviews

A literature review is a written approach to examining published information on a particular topic or field. Authors use this review of literature to create a foundation and justification for their research or to demonstrate knowledge on the current state of a field. This review can take the form of a course assignment or a section of a longer project, such as a Culminating Project. 

Students often misinterpret the term literature review to mean merely a collection of source summaries, similar to annotations or article abstracts. Although summarizing is an element of a literature review, you will want to approach this assignment as a comprehensive representation of your understanding of a topic or field, such as what has already been done or what has been found. Then, also using these sources, you can demonstrate the need for future research, specifically, your future research.

What Exactly Should I Do?

Steps To Writing A Literature Review

1. Find a Working Topic

Look at your specific area of study. Think about what interests you, and what is fertile ground for study. Talk to your professor, brainstorm, and read lecture notes and recent issues of periodicals in the field.

2. Review the Literature

  • Using keywords, search a computer database. It is best to use at least two databases relevant to your discipline.  This is called "pre-searching."
  • Remember that the reference lists of recent articles and reviews can lead to valuable papers.  Mine them for all you can!
  • Make certain that you also include any studies contrary to your point of view.

3. Focus Your Topic Narrowly and Select Papers Accordingly

Consider the following:

  • What interests you?
  • What interests others?
  • What time span of research will you consider?

Choose an area of research that is due for a review.

4. Read the Selected Articles Thoroughly and Evaluate Them

  • What assumptions do most/some researchers seem to be making?
  • What methodologies do they use? what testing procedures, subjects, material tested?
  • Evaluate and synthesize the research findings and conclusions drawn
  • Note experts in the field: names/labs that are frequently referenced
  • Note conflicting theories, results, methodologies
  • Watch for popularity of theories and how this has/has not changed over time

5. Organize the Selected Papers By Looking For Patterns and By Developing Subtopics

Note things such as:

  • Findings that are common/contested
  • Two or three important trends in the research
  • The most influential theories

6. Develop a Working Thesis

Write a one or two sentence statement summarizing the conclusion you have reached about the major trends and developments you see in the research that has been done on your subject.

7. Organize Your Own Paper Based on the Findings From Steps 4 & 5

Develop headings/subheadings. If your literature review is extensive, find a large table surface, and on it place post-it notes or filing cards to organize all your findings into categories. Move them around if you decide that (a) they fit better under different headings, or (b) you need to establish new topic headings.  Physically manipulating your thoughts is a very effective strategy for organizing and seeing connections.

8. Write the Body of the Paper

Follow the plan you have developed above, making certain that each section links logically to the one before and after, and that you have divided your sections by themes or subtopics, not by reporting the work of individual theorists or researchers.

9. Look At What You Have Written; Focus On Synthesis and Analysis

A literature review should synthesize, or connect ideas to one another under a unified theme.  

Look at the topic sentences of each paragraph. If you were to read only these sentences, would you find that your paper presented a clear position, logically developed, from beginning to end? If, for example, you find that each paragraph begins with a researcher's name, it might indicate that, instead of evaluating and comparing the research literature from an analytical point of view, you have simply described what research has been done. This is one of the most common problems with student literature reviews. So if your paper still does not appear to be defined by a central, guiding concept, or if it does not critically analyze the literature selected and make connections between the work of different researchers (in other words, synthesize), it's time to head back to the drawing board.

10.  Paraphrase over Summary and Quotation

Avoid direct quotations. Just like in an annotated bibliography, you will want to paraphrase all of the material you present in a literature review. This assignment is a chance for you to demonstrate your knowledge on a topic, and putting ideas into your own words will ensure that you are interpreting the found material for your reader. Paraphrasing will also ensure your review of literature is in your personal author's voice.

11.  Write the Introduction and Conclusion After the Body

Think about it.  How do you know what you will be introducing until after you've framed out your thoughts?  And how can you wrap things up until you know what you're wrapping up?

 

Thanks to the library at the University of Guelph for sharing many of these tips!